Updated on May 26, 2016
17. ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
About a month ago, when I was sick with the flu and couldn’t do anything but lie on the sofa and stare blankly at the TV, I got quite fed up with daytime TV (even I can only stand one or two episodes of Jerseylicious), so I spent an entire day watching TED talks on YouTube.
By far my favourite from that entire marathon was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talking about ‘the danger of a single story’. Her excellent talk discusses how limiting it is to have only one image of a particular place or people, and how we should all create and absorb multiple stories to avoid the dangers of oversimplification. I’m going to put the talk here because I think it is just so fantastic and everyone should watch it.
A couple of weeks later I was on the beach in Antigua (recovered, thankfully) with a huge, hardback library copy of Adichie’s novel Americanah on my lap, and very happy I was too.
Americanah follows the lives of two Nigerians over several decades. First there is Ifemelu, a young woman who moves away to the USA when the military dictatorship forces her university to close; in America she becomes an influential race blogger and she ends up staying for many years. Second is Obinze, Ifemelu’s boyfriend and first love, who attempts to follow her to America but is denied entry. We see him struggle instead to remain in the UK and, eventually, get deported back to Nigeria. When the two finally meet again they have both moved on in life and love, but there is still something drawing them back to each other, and they each face some tough decisions.
I loved that the book is scattered throughout with Ifemelu’s posts from her blog, ‘Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black’. These posts are searingly honest and questioning, often funny and usually controversial. I found it fascinating to read Ifemelu’s thoughts about the differences between American and non-American blacks, and the isolation she feels as a stranger in a foreign country. She writes about America’s deep racial tensions and the representation of black people in the US media, as well as things like the implications of how a black person chooses to wear their hair. At the heart of it all is the idea that race is a far bigger issue in America than it ever was for her in Nigeria.
“I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”
This novel does so much to highlight the ways in which race is talked and written and thought about, and how it is only privilege that allows white people to say things like, “Why must we always talk about race anyway? Can’t we just be human beings?” Of course we have to talk about race – as long as there are people out there experiencing prejudice and discrimination it won’t do to sweep it under the rug and proudly proclaim how we would like the world to be. It isn’t that way, and there is still much to change before we can wash our hands and say that it no longer needs to be talked about. At least, that’s one of the core messages I took away from the book.
Of course, Americanah isn’t just a platform for Adichie to hold forth about her opinions on race – it is an absolutely brilliant novel, written with absolute psychological precision. She really gets across the often rambling and chaotic nature of life, how people can end up doing things they never thought they would, following careers they never even imagined and staying or moving around the world based, seemingly, on whim and chance. The writing is simply immaculate too. There are metaphors in here that took my breath away, and on virtually every page I wanted to write down some beautiful turn of phrase or superb shift of perspective. This novel is hundreds of pages long and has an enormous cast of characters, but Adichie carried me all the way through without losing my interest once.
I think this is a brilliant book, and I’ve already taken out a collection of Adichie’s short stories from the library because I need to read more of her work.
“If she put herself apart perhaps she would be less of the person she feared she had become.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.